New research by James Cook University reveals that proposals to grow oil palm in Papua New Guinea are being used to avoid restrictions on logging rather than to grow the controversial crop.
JCU’s Dr Paul Nelson, from the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science, and Jennifer Gabriel, from the School of Arts and Social Sciences, are the lead authors of Oil palm and deforestation in Papua New Guinea, published in Conservation Letters, the journal of the Society for Conservation Biology.
“Logging in Papua New Guinea is a major driver of deforestation, oil palm plantations are not,” Dr Nelson said.
The researchers studied 36 oil palm proposals with plantings planned for 948,000 ha, but expect that only five plantations covering 181,700 ha might eventuate.
Dr Nelson said it was crucial that the real intentions of developers were understood and highlighted so the PNG Government could manage the situation appropriately.
“The most likely scenario in years to come is large-scale clearing and extraction of timber with little of the land being converted to sustainable agricultural production,” he said.
“At present, a lot of people around the world think buying products containing palm oil encourages deforestation, but boycotting those products at the supermarket is not going to stop loss of forest in PNG.
“Most of the developers in PNG are clearing forest with no intention of cultivating oil palm. Instead they’re using agricultural leases to circumvent restrictions on logging.”
Dr Nelson said the PNG Government created Special Agricultural and Business Leases to expand commercial agricultural activities but the leases were being misused.
“Under forestry guidelines loggers are not permitted to export raw logs from areas covered by new timber permits, but if the same companies are granted the lease they can obtain a forest clearance authority that allows them to export logs,” he said.
“If someone wants to make money from cutting down trees and selling the logs, the easiest way has been to apply for a Special Agricultural and Business Lease.
“The leases also mean land tenure is converted from customary ownership to long-term corporate leases. This is not necessarily in the best interest of the customary owners if the ultimate use of the land is unsustainable.
“A large-scale land grab is occurring in PNG under the guise of oil palm development, but where there is real oil palm production it is sustainable.”
Dr Nelson said all palm oil currently produced in PNG was certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, supported by WWF.
“Certified palm oil is produced without clearing of primary forests and with transparent and fair agreements with landowners,” he said.
“It is PNG’s most valuable agricultural export and the country’s largest non-government employer, so the industry is integral to the economy.
“A Commission of Inquiry examining the legality of the Special Agricultural and Business Leases has been conducted although the report has not yet been tabled.”
Issued August 8, 2013
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